10 tech-savvy ways to protect yourself from online fraud

By Benjamin Salisbury and Marianne Curphey

The battle with cybercrime is never-ending -- it seems as soon as there's a solution to one problem, thieves come up with two new ways to steal identities. However, resistance is not futile. There are ways you can make your cyber defenses as strong as possible.

"The UK cyber market is worth over £80 billion a year and rising," said Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude at the October launch of Get Safe Online Week. "The internet is undoubtedly a force for good but we cannot stand still in the face of these threats, which already cost our economy billions every year."

In fact, the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau found that more than £670 million was lost in just the top 10 online frauds reported between 1 September 2013 and 31 August 2014. safe-online-shopping

More than half of us have been hit. In a Vision Critical poll of 2,000 people, 51% said they had been a victim of online crime. Yet more than half of mobile phone users (54%) and about a third of laptop owners (37%) do not have a password or PIN for their device. Those numbers are even higher for desktop PC and tablet users.

Though victims of online crime generally say they will opt for stronger passwords and exert extra vigilance when shopping online, you shouldn't wait until you become a victim to take action.

In addition to the more obvious steps, such as not sharing your personal information with an untrustworthy site, here are some more tech-savvy steps to protect your identity while you're online.

1. Ask yourself: is it a genuine website?
If you use a website often and notice a sudden, significant change (in other words, something more than just the color scheme or layout, such as the content on an information input page), avoid using it until you verify that it is a genuine website.

Also beware suspicious emails that could that could include links to malware-laden pages.

"With every retailer sending emails for this amazing deal or that incredible offer, attackers have plenty of opportunity to create seemingly credible, yet fake emails designed to lure you into visiting a compromised website, opening a malicious attachment, or giving them some confidential information," says Lee Weiner, senior vice president of products and engineering at Rapid7 Security Experts.

If you don't recognize the sender, do not open the email. If it is a message from a supposedly legitimate site, such as your bank, but looks different in any way from usual emails from that site, do not click any links in the email. Call the company that supposedly sent the email to be sure it is legitimate. And if it's an email from a retailer claiming a great deal, always check out the retailer's website to see if the deal is real.

2. Use strong passwords
Many websites that include personal details require a certain "strength" password. It may require a capital letter or use of a number or special character. To ensure a strong password, do not use words that are obviously tied to you, such as a family member's name or your birth date. Crooks can get details from a number of sources, such as social media, and might be able to guess an easy password.

To get a strong password, try substituting a letter for a number or symbol (for example, a "3" for an "e"). You can also choose a phrase that means something to you and only use the first letters of each word in the phrase. For example, you may choose a common phrase such as, "When life hands you lemons, make lemonade" and turn it into: WLhYLml. Change passwords regularly and don't share them.

3.  Purchase anti-virus software
Use anti-virus software and keep it up to date. The software will check for malicious computer programs and monitor files before you open them. There are many anti-virus programs to choose from; some free, some not. As long as the software is from a legitimate company, it should do the trick. Consider PC Advisor's guide to anti-virus software to narrow down your selection.

4. Turn on your firewall
A firewall is a security shield that stops from scammers getting into your computer. Operating systems such as Windows come with built in firewall settings. Make sure yours is on at all times.

5. Update your web browser and operating system
Whether you use Internet Explorer, Firefox or Chrome, your browser will update every so often. Always install the latest version of your web browser, as it will have the latest security features.

Your operating system, such as Windows, requires updates as well. Do not ignore these updates -- take care of them swiftly and follow all steps to be sure the update is complete.

You can visit the browser's website and download the latest version, or you can visit www.whatbrowser.org, which will tell you the name and version of the browser you are using, whether you should update it, and how to do so. 

6. Install software safely and correctly
If you purchase software, first be sure you're using a secure, legitimate site to purchase it. Then, install the software correctly. If you have to save a file or restart your computer for the software to install correctly, make sure to do so. If you purchase an antivirus software disc, check that the installation is complete before ejecting the disc.

7. Check the web address and padlock symbol
When you're shopping online, check the URL of the payment page before you enter any card details. It should begin with "https". The "s" stands for "secure". Also look for a padlock symbol in the URL bar, which appears when you attempt to log in or register.

8. Don't register for sites, or always log out if you do
Most retail sites will offer you the choice to shop as a guest or register for the site. Shopping as a guest limits the amount of information the site stores about you.  The more sites that are storing your personal information, the more you are exposing yourself and trusting third parties to protect your confidential data.

If you do sign up for an account with an e-tailer, make sure you click on the "logout" button.

"If a site asks you to register in order to make a purchase, closing the browser will not necessarily log you out," warns George Charles, marketing director of VoucherCodesPro. "Finally, after a purchase has been made, it is advisable to check online banking in order to make sure the correct amount of money has been taken, and no more."

9. Don't ignore security on your mobile or tablet
"The principles of staying safe while shopping on your mobile are similar to those you would use online," says James Heaphy, mobile commerce senior programme director with the GSM Association. "Don't divulge personal details, keep your passwords secure and make sure you have a SIM or screen lock on your mobile."

10. Don't use public networks
Public networks at cafes, restaurants or airports are rarely secure, and are a good place for someone to try to interfere with your browsing.

See related: Protect yourself from fraud while shopping online, Small businesses especially vulnerable to data breaches

Updated: 25 November 2014